AVERY MODERN FAIRYTALE
She’s one of Oprah’s favourite actresses, has the Streep seal of approval and is starring alongside Emma Watson and Ewan McGregor in Beauty and the Beast. Celia Walden meets Gugu Mbatha-Raw, an Oxford girl done very, very good
You don’t forget your first phone call from Oprah. At least Gugu Mbatha-Raw won’t. The woman she now calls her ‘fairy godmother’ – but had never met at the time – left her a voicemail four years ago, when Gugu was in a New York cab on her way to JFK. ‘ When I listened to the message, it was the weirdest thing,’ she says, succumbing to a fit of giggles. ‘Because at that time I was doing Oprah’s meditation experience with Deepak Chopra, where they email you a short meditation each day. Then suddenly I get this lovely rich voice saying, “Hello, this is Oprah” – and it sounded just like the opening of the meditation app. I thought I’d pressed the wrong button by mistake.’
This was no mistake. This was the Queen of Media direct-dialling the actress to tell her how impressed she had been by her performance as Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race 18th-century aristocrat in Amma Asante’s 2013 film of the true story, Belle.
Hugging her knees to her chest on a sofa in LA’s Chateau Marmont hotel, the 33-year-old relives the moment. ‘Oprah had loved the film,’ she explains. ‘And she had also seen me interviewed by her friend Gayle King – she had liked my answer when I’d been asked, “Would you like to be the next…?”’
Her answer being? ‘ Well that, actually, I’d rather be the first me.’
Four years on, Gugu has managed to make that sassy soundbite a reality. After Belle – her breakthrough role, for which she won a British Independent Film Award – the Rada-trained actress went on to prove her credentials opposite Minnie Driver in Beyond the Lights, a Bodyguard- esque romance exposing the sinister underbelly of the entertainment industry. Parts in the sci-fi thriller Jupiter Ascending with Eddie Redmayne, and Concussion opposite Will Smith followed, and most recently, in the dystopian drama Black Mirror for Netflix.
Last year’s Free State of Jones – in which Gugu plays a runaway slave during the American Civil War who falls in love with Matthew McConaughey’s Confederate army deserter – prompted Time magazine to highlight her ‘uncanny knack for making centuries-old history feel jarringly proximate’. The Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, praised her ‘uncommon versatility’ – something she’ll be putting to the test in her biggest project to date, Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, in which Gugu plays… a feather duster.
Anyone who remembers Disney’s gorgeous 1991 animation will know that Plumette is no ordinary feather duster. Once the Beast’s maid, she is a victim of the same curse that has turned an arrogant Prince (played by Downton’s Dan Stevens) into a monster, his two butlers into Lumière the candlestick (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), and his cook into Mrs Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson). Only when their master’s love for the bookish Belle (played by Emma Watson) is reciprocated do all these household objects become human again.
‘Actually, the first thing we filmed was the huge, sumptuous ballroom scene at the end,’ Gugu explains when I ask whether she and her love interest Lumière ever managed to leave the voice-over studio. ‘I was hideously jet-lagged and it was my first introduction to Ewan, so we were both trying to learn this dance and tripping over each other – that was a nice ice-breaker.’
It was Gugu’s ‘eight-year-old self ’ that leapt at the chance to be involved in the film – a production so eagerly anticipated that the trailer alone broke records with 127.6 million views online in its first 24 hours. ‘It has genuinely been my favourite Disney film of all time. I remember having the tape in the
car and knowing all the words – so there was a lot of nostalgia involved for me. And this one is every bit as sumptuous and magical as the original, only with a bit more humour going on. Gaston [Luke Evans] and Le Fou [Josh Gad] are a really fun double act, for example, and so are Plumette and Lumière.’ We have a slapstick back and forth about the flirty, French-accented Plumette (‘ What’s it like dating a candelabra?’ ‘Do I ever get singed, you mean?’).
Gugu grows serious again once we move on to the difficulties of updating fairytales, which are so often fraught with politically incorrect messages. ‘But I think that’s the cool thing about Belle,’ she says. ‘She’s bookish, she keeps herself to herself and she’s not waiting for Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet and take her away, so there’s not much of that damsel-indistress thing. Also, the whole moral of the story is that beauty comes from within – and that alone is a very positive message.’
The daughter of a South African doctor father and English nurse mother, Gugu’s parents separated when she was a baby and she was brought up by her mother in Witney, Oxfordshire. She spent much of her childhood taking the bus into London to see West End productions of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, feeling, as she puts it, ‘a million miles from Hollywood’. Being an only child, her mother thought it important for her to be social, ‘so I was always that extracurricular kid with this whole after-school life: ballet one night, tap the next, choir, steel band – you name it, I did it.’ As an eight-yearold she remembers begging her mother to enrol her at the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London, ‘to which she said, “absolutely not – you finish your schooling first and then if you still want to do it, you can.” And obviously it all turned out fine.’ ‘Fine’ is characteristic understatement. After the sumptuous Beauty and the Beast, we’ll next see Gugu playing a gun-control lobbyist opposite Jessica Chastain in John Madden’s political thriller, Miss Sloane. The role, she says, made her more aware of violence in films: ‘ Well, it’s free advertising for the National Rifle Association isn’t it? I’ve never liked violent movies but I do feel that mindless, cartoonish violence is worse, because you’re in that video-game mindset and generations of people are growing up numb to that extreme violence.’ She pauses. ‘So I’m more drawn to hopeful, inspiring stories.’ As with the film she is about to start shooting – an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s uplifting youngadult science-fantasy novel, A Wrinkle in
Time. Directed by Ava DuVernay, it also stars Reese Witherspoon – as well as Gugu’s fairy godmother, Oprah Winfrey. ‘I don’t have any scenes with her, sadly,’ says Gugu, ‘ but it’s still going to be great doing this together.’
Part of a generation of British actors who honed their talent at Rada (where her contemporaries included Ben Whishaw, Tom Hiddleston and Andrea Riseborough) and on stage, Gugu was first noticed playing Juliet to Andrew Garfield’s Romeo, aged 22, at the Manchester Royal Exchange. In 2009 she played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in a Donmar Warehouse production of Hamlet that transferred to Broadway – although far too little of the show’s success rubbed off on her, she tells me. ‘Actually, I got very frustrated because all the boys in
‘Ewan and I were trying to learn this dance and tripping over each other – it was an ice-breaker’
the production were signing with managers and nobody was calling me at all.’
It’s this forthrightness that makes Gugu stand out from the pack. I learn, for example, that she has risked antagonising the studios when there’s a matter of principle at stake – in this case, airbrushing. ‘ The whole [issue] has become much more talked about now,’ she tells me. ‘ Which is great. But it wasn’t always that way and back when Belle was about to be released, I was sent an attachment of the first US poster and someone had decided to inflate my boobs and make my eyes green. Green! I wish I could dig out the email chain that I sent to all my agents. I was so furious. Belle was not a cartoon or a comic book and I was really offended that they had lightened my eyes, because anyone who has seen the film will know that it’s about her identity as a biracial woman.’ They hadn’t lightened her skin, I hope? ‘No – but it’s all connected. And needless to say, it got sorted quickly. But it made me vigilant.’
It’s curious – and heartening – that Gugu has reached such star status without really playing the game. She’s been happy to talk gender and race in the past, but has always deflected interviewers pressing her too hard on either, presumably preferring to be known for her performances rather than the hot-button issues du jour. Her private life has always remained just that (the only relationship we’ve known about so far is one with Game of Thrones actor Harry Lloyd, which ended in 2012) and when I ask what the dating scene is like in LA, she says firmly, ‘Actually, I never talk about that side of things in interviews.’ She’s not on any kind of social media: ‘Maybe it’s oldfashioned, but I feel like I put enough of myself out there with my face on the screen and the publicity I do for those projects – and I also feel like I’m on the edge of a generation who can just take it or leave it.’
I wonder whether it’s because success didn’t come overnight for Gugu that she’s remained blissfully unspoiled. She seems astonished that Hollywood peers have noticed her work, recounting the day she first met Meryl Streep at a Bafta tea party, ‘And she told me she’d loved Beyond the
Lights, which I found amazing.’ And yet she exudes a sense of belonging here at the Chateau Marmont, and in LA, which has for four years now been ‘home’.
‘I do love it,’ she admits, ‘ because that whole La La Land “another day of sun” thing does give you a spring in your step – and also because I was always into that healthy living, yoga-and-green-juice thing back home – even though there it makes you feel like a bit of a freak.’ She misses Britain. ‘It’s the sense of humour I miss most – that dry pessimism. I sometimes think there is an eye-roll that’s lacking out here. That irony, you know? And walking in the English countryside, and the seasons… I mean look,’ she says, pulling a scarf out of her battered Coach leopard-print bag as we head out into the blistering midday sun, ‘I still wear this out of habit.’ As I drive off past the 20-foot Beauty and
the Beast billboard above Sunset Boulevard, it occurs to me that that’s the one habit Gugu might have to lose. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is out on 17 March
‘Someone had decided to inflate my boobs and make my eyes green. Green! I was so furious’
Clockwise from above in Free State of Jones, with Matthew McConaughey; as Belle; in Beauty and the Beast; with Helen Mirren in Washington last year
Gugu’s best looks: (l-r) in Burberry, Prada, Rodarte, Sandro, Narciso Rodriquez and Lela Rose. Below With her ‘fairy godmother’, Oprah